What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing Book Review

What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing Book Review

What Happened To You Book Cover and image of Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey on Super Soul Sunday
Written by Heather Sowers, LCSW-C, Former C.A.S.E. Adoption-Competent Therapist
Published on: Nov 15, 2023
Category Book Reviews

My first real full-time adult job was as a childcare worker at a group home — though the concrete block walls and rigid policies of the agency did little to make it feel at all home-like. The units I worked on each had five children between 10 – 13 years old; out of the ten children, seven were wards of the state and three still had reunification plans with their biological parents.

Part of my orientation was to sit in the main office and read the foot thick paper files on each child I worked with: a girl adopted from foster care as a toddler and then returned to the system when the adoption was dissolved, a boy who’s parents’ rights had been terminated many years ago and had been labeled ‘unadoptable,’ a Native American boy placed several hours’ distance from his family and home, making it hard for his parents to meet the requirements for reunification. Even though this was a small agency, even though everyone wanted what was best for the kids – the agency approached the kids (and their families) with a “What’s wrong with you?” mind set. The behavior modification strategies and excessive medications all of the kids were on did not work. Many of the so-called therapeutic interventions were traumatizing for the children and the staff.

Today, thirty years later, we are finally asking the right question – “What Happened to You?

Back when I was a naïve twenty-year-old just wanting to help kids, we knew so little about how adverse childhood experiences impact the brain and childhood development. Thankfully, research in neurobiology has connected the dots to show how trauma impacts the way a child’s brain is wired and how it continues to react even when no longer in danger. Raw stories from Oprah’s own life as well as from people she’s interviewed, and Dr. Perry’s clients are interwoven with visual aids that show how our trauma response systems typically work and how they are compromised (but not broken) due to trauma. I especially appreciate Dr. Perry’s mantra of “Regulate, Relate, Reason” as a crucial reminder of how to respond to the often-challenging behaviors children and adults have when they are chronically stuck in a Fight, Flight or Freeze response.

How can this book help adoptive families and adoption competent professionals?
  • Parents and professionals working with the adoption kinship network will benefit from how the authors give a basic overview of adverse childhood experiences (trauma) and how kids’ stress response systems become sensitized, resulting in often challenging behaviors that remain years after the initial toxic stressors occurred.
  • The accessible brain science in this book explains why even infants adopted at birth are impacted by the intra-uterine stressors their birth mother experiences as well as behavior patterns that are transmissible from generation to generation.
  • The stories in this book are painful to read, especially for a parent or professional with a low ACEs score. Facing the feelings that come up when confronted with trauma and loss is a crucial aspect of developing the empathy and strength needed to be a supportive witness to your child or client’s story.
  • For any adult with a high ACEs score, this book is a long-needed light in the darkness. The authors do not sugar coat what it means to survive childhood trauma. They create a metaphorical light by being brave enough to describe how terrified children feel when they experience various kinds of abuse and neglect. They stand with the reader in the darkness of these stories by simply validating the difficult feelings that are so easy to deny, repress or self-medicate away.
  • In the chapter called ‘Our Brains, Our Biases, Our Systems’ Dr. Perry writes “To be excluded or dehumanized in an organization, community or society you are part of results in prolonged, uncontrollable stress that is sensitizing. Marginalization is a fundamental trauma.” Oprah and Dr. Perry explore how you can’t be trauma-informed (or adoption competent!) without recognizing the biases towards race, gender and sexual orientation that exist in ourselves and our systems.
  • Understanding the science behind trauma may help adoptive parents and professionals alike be able to view birth parents from a What Happened to You? lens instead of a What’s Wrong with You?
  • On the practical side, Dr. Perry shares examples of what it means to Regulate, Relate and Reason with a child who’s default trauma response is to become overactivated (fight or flight) or deactivated (freeze).

An avid library user and audiobook listener, I rarely buy physical books anymore, but I bought this one and didn’t even wait for it to come out in paperback! This book is already full of my underlining, questions and exclamation points and I’m sure I’ll add more. As a therapist, my own self-directed path to become more trauma-informed was validated when I recognized and had read many of the titles in the resource section at the end of this book.

I’ll end with a quote that may resonate with adults who love and care for children who have experienced sad losses, big changes and scary things:

“…back away from teaching, coaching and reasoning when the child’s state is such that they cannot learn.  Focus on being present and regulate yourself when you start to feel frustrated, disrespected or angry because they have not listened to you. If you step away and calm down, you will have access to your cortex to then remember ways to regulate the child…An exhausted, frustrated, dysregulated adult can’t regulate anyone….if you don’t give back to yourself, you simply will not be effective as a teacher, leader, supervisor, parent, coach, anything. Self-care is huge…Remember, the major tool you have in helping others to change is you.  Relationships are the currency of change.”

Written by Heather Sowers, LCSW-C, Former C.A.S.E. Adoption-Competent Therapist

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